Serious Eats: Drinks
A Buyer's Guide to Vintage Cocktail Books
You've been into making cocktails for awhile now. You've stocked your bookshelves with all the modern classic cocktail manuals, and you're finally ready to dip your toes into the vintage book scene. Where to begin? (Or perhaps, because it's the holiday season, you're shopping for someone who'd love a vintage cocktail book or ten. This guide is for you, too.)
What Is a Vintage Book?
First, let's define what I mean by vintage. I'm referring mainly to books that are old and out of print. They might be rare, but they don't necessarily have to be. What "old" means depends on your frame of reference, but generally speaking we're looking at books from the 1960s and earlier.
What's the Appeal?
So, what makes these special? To a certain extent, you can say it's the recipes that give these books their appeal. Bars all over the world now feature cocktails plucked from obscure cocktail books by diligent bartenders poring through old tomes. The Last Word, rediscovered by Seattle's Murray Stenson, may be the best known example. But Ted Haigh filled a book of his own (Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails) with such recipes, and David Wondrich has two (Imbibe! and Punch).
But does that mean all the good recipes have already been rediscovered? Not necessarily; there may still be gems within these books, and you might be the person to discover them.
But that's missing the broader appeal of these books. They do more than provide recipes. They also provide a glimpse at the past of drinking, drinking culture, bar history, good (and bad) drinking behavior, and the appearance and behavior of bartenders. From Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson we learn that bartenders used to create their own bitters and liqueurs; you can find recipes and techniques in those volumes. (Are you a fan of Marcia Simmons's "DIY vs. Buy" column? Marcia's not just saving you some money, she's also continuing a very long tradition of house-made bar ingredients.)
From these books we learn how bartenders should dress, prepare their work areas pre-shift, greet guests, serve drinks, keep water glasses full, and clean up afterward. Basic hospitality. I suspect we've all been in mixologist-haven bars that have neglected certain aspects of hospitality.
A Rough Timeline
I divide vintage cocktail books into a rough timeline. I'm breaking it down for you this way just so you have some basic idea of the types of books you might find. None of this is hard and fast. Like so many other things in the history of imbibing, the focus is Prohibition.
- Pre-Prohibition books: The first known cocktail manual of any regard is Jerry Thomas's book of 1862. It's known variously as The Bar-Tender's Guide, How to Mix Drinks, and The Bon-Vivant's Companion. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other books appeared in the decades between Thomas's and the enactment of Prohibition.
- Prohibition-era books: Prohibition pushed the cocktail scene east, across the North Atlantic, to England and the Continent. Dozens of American bartenders tramped across the water and found new homes in European bars. The bulk of bar guides from this era were published in Europe, some in English and some in French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Harry Craddock's The Savoy Cocktail Book is the classic example of this period, published in 1930, but dozens more were published in this time.
- Post-repeal books: After Repeal, many expat bartenders returned home, and others, who had simply retired during Prohibition, went back to work. The bar manuals that came out just after Prohibition were meant to revive pre-Prohibition recipes and techniques, and also to codify and explain the new cocktails that arose in American speakeasies and European bars during Prohibition.
Of course, this is just a rough overview. Not all of the cocktail books that came out during Prohibition, for example, were published in Europe; some were published in the U.S. (There was no law against writing about booze.) And some of during-Prohibition books helped codify the speakeasy cocktail.
Okay, the meat and potatoes of this piece: where do you find these things, and how many hundreds of dollars will you need to shill out?
First off, depending on your needs, you might only have to shill out a fraction of a hundred dollars for one of these books.
The market for reproductions of vintage books has grown gloriously in the last few years. If you're not looking for an original vintage book, the reproduction market is the way to go. Dozens of books are available these days, including all of the seminal books, such as Thomas's, Johnson's, and Craddock's. Some of these are true reproductions of the originals, down to the typography and illustrations; some are basic reprints of the text.
Two companies are working to bring vintage cocktail books back to the market in affordable reproductions or reprints. (A few other companies have one-off reproductions available; these publishers don't specialize in cocktail books per se, but have seminal volumes among their backlist.) The two companies that specialize in cocktail books are Mud Puddle Books and Mixellany. Both feature both new books and old, but it's pretty easy to pick out the vintage reproductions on their websites.
Some find eBay to be a gold mine for old books; I've bought a few this way, and my experiences have been varied. A few books I got off eBay for a steal; in a couple of other cases, though, I got caught up in bidding wars that drove the price of the book way beyond its actual value.
If you're looking for a holiday present, the idea of trolling the book shops in your area may be impractical—unless you're already shopping for 2013, of course. One of the books I found on eBay was Ted Saucier's saucy Bottom's Up. I will not tell you what I paid for it, but it was far more than the $15 one of my friends paid for it at a book shop. (Bottom's Up, by the way, is out now in a facsimile. I cannot vouch for its quality.)
Plain Good Luck
My wife went looking one year for a copy of David Embury's The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. (This was years before Mud Puddle issued a reproduction, which I'd have been quite happy with.) She found a copy of the first edition hardcover for a song. I can't find anything older than the SECOND edition online right now, and even that goes for hundreds more than she paid.
Ten Classic Vintage Books
I am, pretty much at random, going to list here 10 books that I think are classics in the field. I say "at random" because there's no way I can list everyone's favorite vintage book. If you can find them as originals for not much money, you're lucky. I will list reproductions where they're available. These are in order of release:
- Jerry Thomas. The Bar-Tender's Guide. 1862. (Various publishers have reprints available, for not much money.)
- Harry Johnson. Harry Johnson's Bartenders' Manual. 1900. Mud Puddle has a facsimile.
- Harry Craddock. The Savoy Cocktail Book. 1930. Various reprint editions exist, some closer to the original than others. This one is less authentic than others, but it's in print and cheap.
- A. S. Crockett. The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. 1934. Reprint.
- Patrick Gavin Duffy. Official Mixer's Manual. 1934. (There was a 1983 edition, but even that's out of print now.)
- Charles Baker. The Gentleman's Companion. 1939. Published initially in two volumes. The first edition is relatively easy to find, but expensive. Volume I pertains to food. Volume II pertains to cocktails. Both volumes are in print as separate books. Jigger, Beaker, and Glass reprints the second volume.
- Victor Bergeron. Trader Vic's Book of Food and Drink. The first tiki book. Not currently in print. 1946.
- David Embury. The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. 1948. Mud Puddle's reprint.
- Esquire's Handbook for Hosts. 1949. A 1999 reproduction is out of print, but widely available online for not much money.
- Ted Saucier. Bottom's Up. 1951. A 2011 facsimile is available for not much money.
Tell us, do you have any vintage books in your collection? If so, how and where did you find them? There are scores of great old books out there, and I couldn't even begin to cover them all. What did I miss?
About the author: Michael Dietsch is a vintage cocktailian who approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He and his family recently relocated to Brooklyn, New York. Find him on twitter at @dietsch.